Why the Hill Street Challenge is good cannabis branding

The Hill Street Beverage Company has launched a contest encouraging people to give up alcohol this month in support of a good cause.

Anyone taking the “Hill Street Challenge” is asked to share their exploits on social media using one of two hashtags: #DryForArthritis (in support of the Arthritis Society of Canada) or #PCC (in support of Prostate Cancer Canada). The charity with the most support at the end of the month will receive $10,000 from Hill Street.

The Challenge is being supported by a series of humorous video ads portraying some of the benefits of going alcohol-free. Agency Brandfire created the ads in partnership with production house Someplace Nice. Here’s one, with the other four below.

Hill Street Beverage produces alcohol-free beer and wine, which means there’s a nice alignment with a Dry January cause-marketing initiative. But the real payoff for the brand could come in October, when Hill Street can legally begin selling its cannabis-infused beers and wines.

The marketing story Hill Street wants to tell Canadians is that cannabis is a demonstrably healthier alternative to alcohol—even if the government says advertising alcohol is fine but advertising cannabis is not.

The challenge, says Hill Street CEO Terry Donnelly, is how to raise brand awareness as a small start-up in a heavily regulated business, all while competing against billion-dollar cannabis companies. “They can compete by sheer force of spending,” he says. (Mass product advertising may be outlawed, but cannabis companies are finding ways to spend on “education” and gated content, says Donnelly.)

The company’s strategy was to work with charities and research organizations that also want people drinking less alcohol. “We built our brand platform on the premise that every can and bottle we sell includes a donation to charity,” he says. “So we built a cause-related brand as a way of building our brand in the face of the prohibition from the Federal government.”

Cannabis marketing expert Rachel Colic says the campaign is a great example of how cannabis marketers need to go about building awareness.

“My greatest advice right now to [licensed producers] is to be about more than your products,” says Colic, who is the founder of Eves of Eden—a cannabis lifestyle brand that caters to women. “At the end of the day no one really cares about your product or your brand unless you’re positively impacting their lives in some way.”

Hill Street makes that mission statement clear on its website: “We have a cause and we are passionate about it.”

“Notice it’s not the same old line ‘we make the highest quality cannabis products’ that we keep hearing from cannabis companies,” says Colic. “Be about more than just your products. This is how great brands are built.”

Meanwhile advertising for the challenge had some extra heavy lifting to do. It not only had to remind people of the benefits of going alcohol free, but tackle another major hurdle for Hill Street: concerns about taste. According to Donnelly, that’s long been a problem for the entire alcohol-free sector.

“The concept behind the advertising was we not only have to convince you to prefer our brand, we have to change your entire way of thinking about non alcoholic wine and beer.”

He informed Brandfire that the creative approach had to be disruptive while retaining Hill Street’s trademark irreverence and defiant tone. “I want you to do the most outrageous creative you have ever done,” he says he told the agency. “And I am going to approve it because we need the advertising to disrupt 100 years of heinous products.”

David Brown